Friday, 27 April 2012

Written on the Heart - Duchess Theatre, Thursday 26th April 2012

The Word of God...something to die for?

Two men, across an 80-year divide, translate the word of God into English. For one, it means death at the stake. For the other, an archbishop's mitre...

After almost a century of unrest, the King James Bible was intended to end the violent upheavals of the English reformation. But deep-seated conflicts force a leading translator to confront the betrayal of his youthful religious ideals.
George Abbot, Bishop of London - Bruce Alexander
William Tyndale - Stephen Boxer
Richard Thompson/William Laud -  Paul Chahidi
Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Ely - Oliver Ford Davies
Laurence Chaderton/Archdeacon - James Hayes
John Overall - Jim Hooper
Samuel Ward - Joseph Kloska
Chaplain - Jamie Ballard
Young Catholic Priest - Mark Quartley
Henry, Prince of Wales Sam Marks
Sir Henry Saville/Squire - Simon Thorp
Lady Alletta Carey/Squire's Wife - Annette McLaughlin
Mary Culler - Jodie McNee

Creative team
Author - David Edgar
Director - Gregory Doran
Designer - Francis O'Connor
Lighting - Tim Mitchell
Music - Paul Englishby
Sound - Jonathan Ruddick

There was excitement aplenty at NTWEW when it transpired that Him Indoors, in 40-odd years of theatre-going (some of them very odd going indeed), had never been to see a show at the Duchess Theatre. Bought tickets for other people to see shows there, yes, and ambled past it swinging a silver-topped cane on many a foggy, gaslit evening while searching for prostitutes (oh no, that’s the plot of Jekyll and Hyde, sorry) but never actually been inside. It was all a poor, flu-ridden reviewer could do from preventing him from hurling himself at the doors and screaming “Let me in! My theatre-going life is but a moment away from being totally complete!”. What we found on the other side of the doors was a theatre which, for once, seems to justify the compulsory “restoration levy” practically every theatre owner in the land charges these days in an attempt to wring more money out of the theatre-going public, rather than put their hands in their pockets and pay for the upkeep of their own property. Its like charging people for coming into your own house because the friction of their bum on your sofa will make the fabric wear out quicker. Because the last time the Duchess was restored was probably just before the Restoration. If you are a fan of textured artex, painted in a nice grubby beige and contrasting nicely with a hideous maroon carpet covered in raspberry pink Edwardian-style foliage swirls and black gloss paint on the woodwork, interspersed with a couple of 30s style downlighters, then head on down to the Duchess before the restorers get there. Add to that some pile-inducingly uncomfortable seating in threadbare crimson plush, set so low that your knees practically obscure the stage and from which the vast majority of your elderly audience are going to be unable to get up without the aid of some kind of block and tackle affair installed in the rafters, and you will be marching on the Box Office and begging them to max out your credit card at B&Q. Still, so far, all those 80 pences (yes, that nice Mr. Osbourne takes 20 pence of every Restoration Pound) have, so far, resulted in “a dazzling new set of expanded lavatories” (rather than “expanding lavatories” as Him Indoors misheard me read from the programme. Mind you, expanding lavatories do sound as if they might be fun and I think we should start demanding expanding lavatories in every theatre from now on). That the lavatories are indeed dazzling was confirmed by one old biddy on the way out, who turned to her companion and quavered “I didn’t expect that from the toilets, did you?” The mind truly boggles - perhaps they were expanding lavatories after all. Apparently “over £350,000 has just been spent in much-needed upgrading” of the grungy old Duchess. Has anyone thought to ask Camilla for a donation? “Polyfilla sponsored by the Duchess of Cornwall’s make-up bag”. Perhaps to smooth over some of that textured Artex. From one grungy old Duchess to another.

Him Indoors was also highly excited that one of his particular blue-eyed boys, Gregory Doran, was directing, and that Oliver Ford-Davies, who seems to have cornered the market as far as whiskery old clergymen is concerned, was playing….er…. a whiskery old clergyman. Me, I was just pleased to be able to get out of the rain (Readallabaht it! Wettest drought since hosepipe ban was ordered! Whole families of ducks swept to their doom in thunderstorm!), sit down and stop coughing for a bit, although throughout the play so much stage smoke is used that I got through an entire packet of Lockets and at one point nearly coughed up a lung. As we were in the second row, the actors must have been well pleased. I think they were even less pleased when a much-rained-on clergyman complained that he had “practically had to swim here all the way from Canterbury”, prompting one wag in the row behind to pipe up “I know how you feel”.

My god, this is a dreary play. Its another play about the translating of the Bible into English by William Tyndale, this time using a time-travel device so that we flick between 1536, when Tyndale made his translation, 1586 when church reforms were starting to bite and 1610 when a conclave of whiskery old clergymen meet to translate his translation, arguing seemingly endlessly and pointlessly about whether “church” should be changed to “congregation”, “flock” into “fold”, “tyrants” into “giants” and for all that anyone really gives a damn “delectable” into “delicious”. Tyndale’s ghost appears to the Bishop of Ely at a moment of schism. And that, really, is all that happens. I love words, linguistics and the growth of language but found this play incredibly dull and "worthy" (in its worst sense"). 2 1/2 hours is an incredibly long time to sit and watch people pontificate (even though its beautifully directed pontification). What promised to be a refreshing, thought provoking change from airheaded musicals turned into a leaden diatribe on a subject which will leave the vast majority of people unmoved.  The audience briefly wake upon the rare occasion that something actually happens, and then return to their word-surfeited slumber. The rest of it is weary speechifying about a book of fairy stories. I don’t deny that Tyndale’s translation was a crucial and important development in the freedom of religious expression and thought, and that it was A Very Good Thing that the humblest ploughman could read the word of God in plain English. But I eventually stopped hoping that something would actually happen and began to drown in the sea of words pouring off the stage out of the mouths of a troop of largely interchangeable clergymen.

I also managed to completely miss a major plot device – one of the characters in the 1586 section reappears in 1610, having grown in the intervening years from a young, slim, average-height redhead into an old, tall, well-built whiskery and white-haired old bishop. Well, how was I to know? His young self is identified in the programme as “Chaplain”, his older self as “Lancelot Andrews, Bishop of Ely”, and the two actors don’t even look like each other. Apparently this device is used twice, although at least this time the young “Archdeacon” and the older “Laurence Chaderton” are at least played by the same person, with the helpful addition of a white whiskery beard to mark the progress of time. I missed that, too. So no wonder I got confused. When during the interval I expressed my confusion and was rounded on by Him Indoors and derided as “allegedly the intelligent one” I think I more or less gave up and amused myself by looking at the scenery. Which is indeed very pretty. I also played “Spot the Direction” for quite a while and can confirm that there is indeed lots of direction and most of it is very good. Mr. Doran has done marvels with reams of seriously dreary text and turned it into Very Well Directed Dreary Text, mainly out of sheer necessity because of action there is very, very little. Someone climbs a ladder and smashes a stained-glass window at one point and the audience is briefly roused from its slumber but the character (shaven-headed so we know he is a thug) stays up the ladder while reams of speechifying eddy round the bottom rungs like a turgid sea, and then at the very end a glittery Prince of Wales strides on in outrageous Jacobean trunks, peach lycra tights and high heels which the actor hasn’t yet got used to as a Deus ex machina to wrap up the end all nice and pat, but that’s about it.

The rest is just words, although there is a worryingly intense kitchenmaid who, for all her literacy and apparent speed-writing skill with an inkpot and feather quill, would never have been allowed to serve the Bishop of Ely looking like she had just cleaned a year’s worth of dripping off the one of the scullions. There’s also a character called John Overall who, sadly, fails to totter on with a tray of home-made macaroons and a very pretty, floppy-haired beardy boy in Puritan grey who rekindled my idea for Period Costume Pornography (suggestions on a postcard, please). Oh yes, and expanded lavatories. But otherwise it can only be Written on the Heart if you use a very big heart and very small letters indeed.

What the critics said (most of them said it before the play transferred to London):

Phenomenonly dreary interview with the phenomenonly dreary author of this phenomenonly dreary play:

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Don Giovanni - Heaven, Monday 16th April 2012

A gender-swap  production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Leo waits outside as Don, her boss, is inside ravishing Petra’s son, Alan. Don suddenly runs from the house with Petra following him. She challenges Don to a duel which ends in her death. After Don and Leo flee, Alan and his fiancée Olivia swear vengeance on her killer.
Don and Leo overhear the sobs of a dumped man. Don approaches, planning to seduce him until he recognizes him as Eddie, a man he recently seduced and abandoned. Don orders Leo to distract him while he escapes. Leo tells Eddie that he is merely one of Don’s thousands of conquests.
Zac and Marina appear, celebrating their impending wedding. Don, lusting after Zac , charges Leo to distract Marina so that he may be alone with Zac. Don has nearly conquered Zac when Eddie interrupts. Alan and Olivia arrive and ask for Don's help in finding Alan’s mothers’ mysterious murderer. Eddie's denunciations of Don arouse their suspicions, but he assures them that Alan is mad. After Don departs, Alan tells Olivia that he recognized Don's voice as that of her mother’s murderer.
Marina chastises Zac for fraternizing with Don, but he convinces her to forgive him. Don invites the couple, along with three clubbers, to a nightclub.
During the dancing, Zac's screams interrupt the dancing revelers, and Don falsely accuses Marina of attacking him. Alan, Olivia and Eddie reveal their identities and confront Don, who manages to escape.
Leo threatens to leave Don's service, but Don convinces her to stay. After Don dupes Marina and makes his escape, Zac comforts his fiancée. Olivia reaffirms her intention to avenge Alan, and Eddie, left alone, laments his betrayal by Don.
Petra’s ghost appears to Don and Leo. Don orders Leo to invite Petra to dinner. Leo, thinking that Don is hallucinating after taking too much cocaine, laughingly agrees.
Don feasts, waited upon by Leo and entertained by a band. Eddie bursts in, urging Don to mend his ways, but he scorns Eddie’s entreaties. The ghost of Petra arrives for dinner, demanding that Don atone for his sins, but he defiantly refuses. Petra drags Don to an old people’s home.

Don (Don Giovanni) - Duncan Rock
Leo (Leporello) - Zoë Bonner
Eddie (Donna Elvira) - Mark Cunningham
Alan (Donna Anna) - Patrick Ashcroft
Petra (Don Pedro) - Tamsin Dalley
Olivia (Don Ottavio) - Stephanie Edwards
Marina (Masetto) - Helen Winter
Zac (Zerlina) – Mark Dugdale
Club Hunk - Damola Onadeko
Gogo dancer/Margaret Thatcher- Samantha Hull
Creative Team
Music by W. A. Mozart, arranged by Tom Albans
Directed by Dominic Gray
Musical Direction by Colin Pettet
Translation by Ranjit Bolt

(Disclaimer: complimentary tickets were given to this production in return for a review (although of course nothing as sordid a bargain as this was actually mentioned). I was going to make some smart allusion to selling one’s soul to the Devil in return for free tickets, until I remembered that I hadn’t  been to see Faust but Don Giovanni. Damn. I hate wasting a good allusion)

Ah, Heaven. A dimly lit, laser slashed hell hole, filled to the brim with pounding music, strobe lighting and sweaty, muscular, gyrating bodies. At least that’s how I remember my one and only visit back in my mis-spent youth. These days, a cup of hot chocolate and a coconut macaroon after a morning on the allotment is how I get my thrills. So it was bizarre to be invited back as the guest of RC Theatre Productions (ooooh, matron!) to review this new, gay retelling of Don Giovanni. The floor was just as sticky as it was back in the 1980s. It was still as dark as I remembered, leading to some major mistakes with the free nibbles. Well, if there’s no decent lighting, how is one supposed to tell the vegetarian free nibbles from the non-vegetarian free nibbles? Thinking it would be rude to lower my face to the plate to the point where my nose was touching the nibbles in order to be able to see them properly, I adopted a policy of “grab, nibble delicately, spit into napkin, dump whole lot into dustbin and repeat until vegetarian free nibble is identified”. I finally found a cheese one, after having ingested nearly as much meat as at my last visit……no sniggering at the back please. This is a serious review!

Having sated on free cheese nibble ( I only found the one), I headed to the bar where free complimentary cocktails were being dished out in plastic glasses. They glowed noxious pink in the desperately poor lighting and I cautiously enquired into their ingredients. I heard the words “grenadine” and “vodka” before the barman’s voice was drowned out in the rising tide of shrieks and airkissing as the place filled up with the achingly cool. His lips kept moving but I heard nothing else – but I had one anyway. Ooooh, little straw so you don’t smudge your lippy. Terribly smart. Shame that it tasted like warm Irn-Bru. Do we know anyone here? Are there Windsors, Rainiers, Grimaldis, Kashoggis? Colleen Rooney? No? Shame. Never mind, there’s Kenny Lynch, he’ll do. Hello darling mwah mwah mwah. St. Moritz, Monte Carlo, Brick Lane darling. Suddenly a hot chocolate and a coconut macaroon are starting to sound very appealing.

A leaf through the programme (very brief because “the programme” consists of a single A3 bit of glossy paper folded in half) reveals that we are attending a performance of “Don Giovanni – The Opera”. Sorry, but when you need to tell people that they are here to see an opera by announcing said fact in the programme, there’s trouble brewing. Mind you, from the vacuous twittering filling the air around me, most of the guest list wouldn’t know opera if it came and sat on their face. Unless that nice Kathryn Jenkins was singing it of course (this is extremely heavy sarcasm which I thought I would point out in case you thought I actually liked Kathryn Jenkins. Some people do, I gather). There are pretty photos of all the cast – but no biographies. Part of the fun from reading theatre biogs is finding out what people have done and where you might have seen them before. But no biogs. Well, that will piss off the legitimate opera critics here – there is bound to be at least one because one of the sponsors is Opera Now magazine. Another of the sponsors is The Hoist, so perhaps the Opera Now critic will be combining his trip here this evening with being forced in a leather harness, tied to the wall and flogged until….well, until the floor is even stickier than it is already. For some reason, there’s a list of “musical numbers” – like you would perhaps find in the programme for Singin in the Rain, and although the performances are being sung in English, the title of each “number” is given in its original Italian, along with details of the “scene” For instance:

Garden in Mayfair:
Non sperar (Alan)
Lasciala, Indegno (Don, Petra, Leo)

Wimpy Bar, Picadilly:
Giovinette che fate (Zac, Marina, Don, Leo)
Ho Capito (Marina)

Presumably this is to enable the majority of my fellow guests to go home thinking “I liked that song they sung in the Wimpy Bar bit” and, having been given the name of the aria in Italian, can now look it up on the iTunes site, download it and think themselves sophisticated.

Hang on a minute – Wimpy Bar? Don Giovanni? Oh, I forgot to tell you. Not only is this a gender swapping production, its also set in 1980s London, or, according to the programme “the heady heyday of the Eighties [sic] club scene” – which in this case appears to mean a poster for Phantom of the Opera and assorted 80s posters as a backdrop. What I can’t work out is, in a nightclub, a place where artifice reigns supreme, why the singers are unmiked and the director has decided to go for a realistic operatic sound (there’s a 10 piece orchestra, for chrissakes). This makes no sense. If you’re performing opera in a nightclub, and setting it in 80s London, mike your singers. It will, at least, enable the less vocally talented ones (to put it kindly) to be heard above the hubbub coming from the assembled throng and the racket made by the bar staff. Particularly when the demands of “promenade staging” (for which read one main stage, a balcony and a couple of small stage areas crammed up against each wall) render your singers invisible some of the time and practically inaudible for the rest of it. And why have a proper orchestra? Record the entire thing using synthesisers and play it over the PA system. Its OPERA, for pete’s sake, the most artificial art form known to man. No point trying to make it sound natural. Go for it. Make it more artificial than it already is – if nothing else it will add an extra layer of irony.

The “promenade staging” goes rather to pot because the place is heaving, meaning that wherever you stand, you will end up missing something, visually or aurally– usually the funniest bits, if last night is anything to go by. This makes the question of why no mikes even more pertinent – from the bits I do manage to hear, the new translation is quite funny. But a lot of it just fades into nothingness as soon as performers turn their back. Some of them can’t be heard when they are facing you anyway. The pace slows awfully in the second act and the denouement is obvious from the outset – Petra’s ghost is going to enter through the Phantom of the Opera poster ho ho ho how wittily ironic. Not. Dragging the Don to an old people’s home is simply daft – this is 80’s London when gay men were apparently “going to die of ignorance” and “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making”. Petra’s ghost should be the spectre of AIDS, bringing the revenge that Don has been courting with his cock. The final bars of the opera are interrupted by the appearance of Samantha Hull’s Maggie Thatcher, which serves only to bring the applause to a stumbling halt. If there was an award for a badly timed interpolation, this would win hands down. There are relatively few people around to see it from the balcony anyway – once the bar stops dishing out free cocktails, numbers thin dramatically, and the performers have to compete with the bar staff crashing about, doors slamming and ignorant fools thinking that its perfectly acceptable to chat brightly to their friends. One particular trio of idiots talk so loudly that they receive several of my best Hard Stares, and eventually I am forced to ask them if they would be quite so rude if this were Covent Garden. I get blank looks in return, and shortly afterwards they start up again. My patience level drops though a hole in the floor and I turn and hiss “We are trying to listen. SHUT UP”. There’s a Professional Clapper somewhere behind me who starts the applause up after every aria.

The 80s aesthetic isn’t really carried through as well as it could be. Men’s tailoring in the 80s was about nipped in waists, padded shoulders and shiny materials (or slubbed linen), and there is precious little of this to be seen. Shirt collars of the period were either long and pointed or absent completely and every man did their top buttons up. Only the Don’s pale Miami Vice outfit (with appropriately rolled sleeves) looks the business here. Patrick Ashcroft’s Allan is particularly badly dressed and coiffed – in fact he looks like he has just got off the train at Charing Cross. Mark Cunningham’s Eddie wears a suit in a 2010 cut, although makes a nod to 80s style with Gordon Gecko-esque braces, white socks and shiny loafers. Helen Winter’s costume is decent and makes a nod to Madonna. Zoe Bonner’s Leo is very quietly dressed for a flash git’s PA, and Stephanie Edward’s Sloane Ranger outfit is barely noticeable – shoulder pads should have been bigger, tights should have been brightly coloured, blouse should have had a high ruffled collar. Men’s hair was generally slicked back with gel or quiffed and highlighted to within an inch of its life and again there’s little evidence of correct period style (it seems odd to refer to the 80s as “period”). Duncan Rock has what is known in the trade as “opera hair”– big and bouffy – and such a city slicker would probably have gelled it back solid.

Duncan Rock was probably born to play the role of Don Giovanni. He has a legitimate operatic bass-baritone; deep, commanding and perfectly placed. Most importantly, you can also hear every single word that comes out of his mouth. He also looks the part – perfectly pumped body, huge shoulders and the complete arrogant self-possession that goes with them. This is how the Don should be played – quite literally cock-sure. This Don is never going to be short of a bed partner. Against a voice like this, everyone else is going to be forced out of the shadows, and although there are a couple of other decent enough voices on stage, set against these Rock’s deep, chocolately tones, its always going to be a case of trying to catch up. Zoe Bonner may have a nice enough voice, but she’s left lagging a long way behind in comparison. If you can’t be heard over a 10 piece orchestra from 50 feet away, you ain’t going to be heard in the upper circle at La Scala, honey. Similarly, Stephanie Edwards sounds sparkly and agile but is simply outclassed. Patrick Ashcroft is a major worry – one of the problems of gender swapping all the roles is that he has to attempt some of Mozart’s most fiendish arias and, sadly, isn’t up to the challenge. In fact, some of his efforts are cringeworthy, exposing his lack of agility and projection. Still, if your production requires a tenor to sing an aria written for a coloratura soprano, what else do you expect?

Its hard to see exactly who this production is aimed at, because it falls between so many stools. Its slick, flashy, easy on the eye and the ear and, ultimately rather shallow, leaving me feeling curiously empty. Even the website is an exercise in disappointment – most of the links merely lead you to blank pages. Perhaps the entire evening is a metaphor for the 80s themselves.

What the critics said:

Thursday, 12 April 2012

The King's Speech - Wyndhams Theatre, Thursday 12th April 2012

I’m sure you saw the film.
Charles, Duke of York (afterwards King George VI) – Charles Edwards
Lionel Logue – Jonathan Hyde
Elizabeth, Duchess of York (afterwards Queen Elizabeth) – Emma Fielding
King George V – Joss Ackland
Winston Churchill – Ian McNeice
Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury – Michael Feast
Myrtle Logue – Charlotte Randle
Stanley Baldwin – David Killick
Edward, Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VIII) – Daniel Betts
Wallis Simpson – Lisa Baird

Creative Team:
Written by: David Seidler
Director: Adrian Noble
Designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Mic Pool

Well, you lucky people – three reviews in the space of week. What larks!

This was an unexpected treat for a rainy afternoon (yah boo sucks to Thames Water and their hosepipe ban!). Him Indoors, with his well-known aversion to the cinematographic arts (“Film is a dead art”) had to be prodded gently to go and see the film when it was released, particularly when he found out that Helena Bonham Carter was in it, and he’s no great fan of Colin Firth either, although when I told him that Ramona Marquez (better known as the little girl from Outnumbered) was playing the young Princess Elizabeth he practically dribbled with anticipation. So when I quietly suggested going to see the play the film was based on, I met a good deal of resistance along the lines of “What do you want to go and see that rubbish again for?” and it is a mark of my powers of persuasive persistence (oft referred to by Him Indoors as “nagging”) that he eventually gave way. Ironically, it seems that he really enjoyed the play, although I suspect the fact that we got considerably reduced-price matinee tickets via a well-known discount website helped quite a lot. He does so love a bargain, bless him. Also the fact that we were “upgraded” to better seats as well because the house was a little thin, so double bubble.

Its difficult to see why Hollywood picked this play up because, on the face of it, its not a particularly earth-shattering script; there are no aliens, no car chases and no roles for overpaid A-listers with buff pecs and perfect teeth. It’s a fairly simple story about the relationship between a man with a speech impediment and his therapist, definitely domestic in its scope. The fact that the former is a member of the Royal Family is almost a side issue, except of course that things start to come to a head when the heir to the throne falls under the spell of an American divorcee called Wallis Simpson. The play is able to delve deep into the personal relationship between “Bertie” and Lionel Logue, concentrating less on the mechanics of the “cure” than the film, and also has time to explore the relationship between Logue and his wife Myrtle, a relationship that was only hinted at on screen. There is also a darned sight more about the chilling relationship between Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson and Hitler than Hollywood had the guts to portray. What falls by the wayside in the play are many of the big “set piece scenes” and consequently things move at a fair clip for the first half hour or so – no sooner have scenes begun than they are over – necessitating some fairly brisk scene changes and lots of quick entrances and exits by the cast to the point where I began to think “I wish they would slow down, I haven’t finished with the scene before last yet and I’m starting to get the theatrical equivalent of indigestion”. But the pace settles once the “set up” is over, George V snuffs it and the shit starts hitting the fan. Poor Joss Ackland gets one big scene and then has to spend the rest of the play in the green room picking his nose, leafing through The Stage and rummaging through other people’s bags.

It sounds odd to say that, once the play slow down, the pace is kept up nicely – but what would be multiple, tedious changes of scene are handled nicely with the use of a double revolve (central disc and external ring), bringing furniture and cast on and off again with split-second timing (pity the poor Stage Manager who must spend all their time in the wings being the theatrical equivalent of a removal man). The use of back projection onto an enormous picture frame brings the crowds at Wembley Stadium, George V[‘s funeral and the Nuremburg Rallies onto the stage without fuss and the frame doubles as a scrim through which other characters and scenes can be glanced.

Performances were generally excellent – any pity for Charles Edwards having to wrestle with the shade of Colin Firth is misplaced because the former shows that he is more than capable, thank you very much. Joss Ackland gives all the young whippersnappers a masterclass in how to sit more or less motionless behind a desk in one short scene and exert a personal magnetism that practically billows over the footlights and makes everyone else on stage completely disappear for five minutes. Daniel Betts handles the small role of Edward VIII with aplomb, creating a smarmy, boo-hiss villain that wouldn’t look out of place in panto. Jonathan Hyde’s Logue is nicely underplayed and Ian McNeice manages to resist hamming up Churchill into caricature, displaying the man’s deft touch for humour and sparks of caustic wit. Michael Feast, however, descends into oleaginous, hand-wringing campery, making his Archbishop of Canterbury a nauseously effete blend of Obadiah Slope, Uriah Heap and Robert Runcie, and Emma Fielding has none of the Queen Mum’s elegance, poise or class. In fact, much as it pains me to say it, Helena Bonham Carter’s performance in the film beat Fielding’s portrayal hands down.

Yes, there is blatant emotional manipulation in this production. The interpolation of deliberately syrupy “film music” was commented on afterwards by Him Indoors, although I have to admit that personally I never noticed most of it. The swelling echoes of “Nimrod” as background to the emotional climax of the play is, perhaps, a little calculated. But it’s a rare English heart that won’t rise into the throat as Good King George, having fought both the Evil King Edward and The Awful Stammer, steps towards the microphone for his famous speech on the eve of war. For indeed “with God’s help, we will prevail”.

What the critics said:

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

She Stoops to Conquer - National Theatre, Monday 9th April 2012

Squire Hardcastle's second wife is quite determined that her spoiled and not too brilliant son, Tony Lumpkin, shall marry her niece, Constance Neville. In this way she will be enabled to keep in the family Miss Neville's fortune which consists of a casket of valuable jewels. The young people, however, have other plans, especially Miss Neville who is secretly pledged to Hastings.
Mr. Hardcastle, likewise, has plans for his own charming daughter, Kate, whom he wishes to marry the son of his old friend, Sir Charles Marlow. It is young Marlow's misfortune to be dumb in the presence of ladies of his own social status. He is, however, a master of clever repartee when talking to barmaids and girls of like station.
The Hardcastle family are expecting the arrival of young Marlow and his friend, Hastings. The approaching travellers stop at the village inn to inquire their way. Tony Lumpkin, who is there as usual with his cronies, conceives the idea of persuading the young men that they have lost their way and will have to spend the night at an inn. He directs them to the Hardcastle house which he highly recommends if they will excuse the eccentricities of the owner and his family.
Neither young Marlow nor Squire Hardcastle sense that both are victims of a hoax and the squire is much incensed at the bold and impudent behavior of his friend's son. Young Hastings, as soon as he sees Constance, puts two and two together. This pair agree to keep Marlow in ignorance and pretend that Constance and Kate simply happen to be stopping the night at the inn.
When introduced to Kate, young Marlow can find little to say and stumbles over that. In his embarrassment he never once looks at her face. It is not surprising, therefore, that later in the evening when he sees her going about the house in the plain house dress her father insists on, he takes her for the barmaid. She encourages the deception in order to find out if he is really as witless as he seems. In her barmaid's guise she is pleasantly surprised to find him not dumb but, indeed, possessed of a graceful and ready wit. When she reveals herself as a well born but poor relation of the Hardcastle family he acknowledges his love for her.
Further comic situations are created by Tony's attempts to help Constance and her lover elope with her casket of jewels. When through ludicrous misunderstandings these come to naught, Squire Hardcastle benignly sets everything right for both pairs of lovers.
Hardcastle - Steve Pemberton
Mrs Hardcastle, his second wife - Sophie Thompson
Kate Hardcastle, their daughter - Katherine Kelly
Tony Lumpkin, Mrs Hardcastle’s son - David Fynn
Miss Neville, Mrs. Hardcastle’s niece - Cush Jumbo
Hastings - John Heffernan
Sir Charles Marlow - Timothy Speyer
Young Marlow, his son - Harry Hadden-Paton
Landlord - Gavin Spokes

Creative Team:
Written by Oliver Goldsmith
Director - Jamie Lloyd
Designer - Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin
Music Director - David Shrubsole

I never really expected to be vastly entertained by this. She Stoops to Conquer is, I will admit, not one of my favourite plays, bearing as it does many similarities with the plays of Sheridan (many of which I find painfully similar to each other and which generally bore me to tears) and more than a touch of farce, my least favourite theatrical genre. I saw it for the first time many moons ago, before this blog was born (and, I think before there was even such a thing as the internet) and it failed to captivate me then. If a play doesn’t grab you the first time round, the second or third time isn’t really going to change your opinion violently one way or the other. You may choose to disagree with this opinion; that’s fine by me. I have on occasion seen something again and elevated it in my opinion as a consequence, but the opposite has also happened. This particular production didn’t stir me violently one way or the other – it merely confirmed my original feeling of “I can take it or leave it”. In fact, I would sum my reaction to SSTC as a play as being “an overwhelming meh”. This makes a review incredibly difficult to write – it’s a great deal of fun ripping something to shreds (particularly when you know your opinion is likely to piss other people off because they loved it) and generally a pleasure to write something laudatory (even more so when everyone else is hurling abuse at it). But when you feel ambivalent about something – that poses a problem.

So the tack I am going to take with this review is “it looks authentic”. Both the director and the designer have wisely avoided trying to make it “relevant” and have presented it honestly and intelligently with a view to how it may have looked during its original run back in the 1770s. Visually, the production is certainly everything you would wish for, with elegant and accurate costumes, presented in a limited colour range which looks right for the period - apart from one coat in shrieking peacock blue and about which I have serious reservations, everything else is in a wonderfully restrained and visually harmonious palette of colours, and the Costume Department have obviously done their homework very well. Costume-wise, its just what you want (and expect) for a play of this period. The scenery is superb and fits the bill perfectly; on the vast, hangar-like stage of the Olivier, the large and gloomy Hardcastle Hall is brilliantly realised – you can almost feel the draughts whistling under the doors. The sound design, with an “overture” of country noises, dogs barking off-stage when people arrive or depart, and so on, is excellent.

To the modern audience, the playing style seems extremely OTT at times, although this again brings a touch of realism because audiences at the time were extremely rowdy and ill-behaved. Theatres of the period were small, crowded and noisy; places to socialise with your friends, get drunk, see and be seen. The actors would often have to fight to be heard, and there would be little point in subtle and naturalistic acting; it would just get lost. The entire place would have been (relatively) brilliantly lit with candles – not until the mid-Edwardian era would the auditorium lights be turned off or down during the performance, so the cast were competing visually as well as audibly. So the very broad playing style is perfectly in period, although this does become extremely tiresome at times, particularly when the cast juxtapose this with modern interpolations in their style of what I would loosely call the “ooooh, suits YOU sir!” school of acting. The diction of the cast cannot generally be faulted – in an extremely wordy play such as this, its important that you can hear what is going on (although one particular member of the cast overdoes things to a degree resulting in her lines becoming a bit hit and miss on the audibility front). Everybody else, though, can be heard with great clarity, and that is something that cannot be taken for granted these days when many actors don’t seem to be able to speak at all clearly or project properly. So, so far, so good.

In order to provide transition between scenes, we are treated to a large chorus of supernumeraries making music with tin cans, kettles, candlesticks and “things to bang them with”, and I found this distracting and yet another example of the National’s apparent policy of putting jolly music into practically every large-scale production whether it be needed or not. There are five musicians in the off-stage orchestra, and it seemed daft to have these as well as the on-stage one – I can’t now recall a single moment in the course of the play when the off-stage orchestra were playing. There were a couple of moments of great hilarity when the mist billowing across the floor in the orchard scene got a bit out of hand and swamped the first two rows of the stalls, leading to two of the cast corpsing outright – although it struck me afterwards that the text actually demands fog in the air, rather than the floor-bound variety. Its supposed to obscure people’s faces rather than their feet. However, there is nothing an audience like better than seeing something go wrong and watching the poor actors trying to get out of it.

Out of all the cast, the one I had most problems with was Sophie Thompson, whose strangulated vowel sounds and wandering regional accent made her sometimes difficult to understand. At several points in the play, she curtsies deeply and the joke is that she is then unable to get up again without help. But every time she went down, she never acted “being helped up”, but merely got straight up again without apparent effort, which rather ruined the illusion. She was, however, very funny when trying to ape “London manners”. David Fynn was probably Man of the Match – Tony Lumpkin is a very difficult part to play successfully without resorting to “standard country bumpkin” – apparently both Tommy Steele and David Essex have played this part and died completely on stage. Fynn, however, manages to retain all the comedy and still come across as an amiable oaf. I would like to have seen a bit more effort from Stephen Pemberton; his Mr. Hardcastle was terribly one dimensional and it seemed to me as if he was simply bellowing his way through the entire part. Apparently Katherine Kelly is “revelatory” in the role of Kate Hardcastle but I saw nothing particularly special in her acting abilities. However, as she was in Coronation Street for a long time, her acting is a bit like the epithet about the talking dog; its not amazing that the dog talks so well, its amazing that the dog can talk at all.

So, all in all, a solid and worthy production with much to recommend it. If, of course, you like that sort of thing. Unfortunately I can’t bring myself to get exercised one way or the other about it. But you might like it. I have, as has been pointed out several times, been wrong before!

What the critics said:

The Grand Duke - Finborough Theatre, Monday 9th April 2012


Ernest Dummkopf's theatrical company, who are to open in Troilus and Cressida that night, are ready to celebrate the wedding of the troupe's leading comedian Ludwig to Lisa, a soubrette of the company. However, the marriage cannot take place yet as there are no parsons available in the city, as all clerics have been summoned to the palace by the Grand Duke to discuss his own forthcoming marriage. This is one more cause for resenting the Grand Duke, and in fact all of the company are members of a plot to blow him up and place a new man on the throne. The secret sign by which members of the conspiracy recognise each other is to eat a sausage roll — a food of which they are by now all heartily sick.
It is clear that Ernest will win the election which is to follow the coup and become Duke, which troubles Julia Jellicoe, the English comedienne. As leading lady of the company, she is bound by contract to play the leading female role in any production. If Ernest, the manager, becomes the Grand Duke, she will have to be the Grand Duchess. This is a repugnant prospect to her (though a delightful one to Ernest), but she declares that she will play the part in a professional manner.
Meanwhile, Ludwig has met a man who returned his secret salute by eating three sausage rolls. Ludwig took him as a member of the conspiracy and told him all the details: only then did he realise that he had just revealed the entire plot to the Grand Duke's private detective. The company are aghast, believing they are doomed once the Grand Duke learns of the plot. The notary, Dr. Tannhäuser, offers a solution. He explains that a century ago the Grand Duke of the time, concerned about the loss of life in duelling, had created the “statutory duel ”: the duellers draw cards, and the one who draws the lower card loses. He becomes legally dead, and the winner takes over his position: his property, responsibilities and debts. The law regulating statutory duels, like all laws of Pfennig-Halbpfennig, lasts for one hundred years unless revived, and it is to lapse tomorrow.

Tannhäuser counsels Ernest and Ludwig to fight a statutory duel; immediately: the loser will be legally dead, and the survivor can go to the Duke and confess the whole plot. As informer he will be spared, while the other party will be "dead” and so beyond retribution. The next day, the loser will come to life when the law lapses, but since death expunges crime, his character will be unstained. Ernest and Ludwig promptly "fight" a statutory duel. Ernest draws a king, but Ludwig draws an Ace and wins.

Grand Duke Rudolph appears, heralded by his corps of chamberlains, and he instructs them in the arrangements for his wedding the next day to the miserly Baroness von Krakenfeldt, who is disconcerted that Rudolph insists on courting her here, in the market square, but he explains that he has made a law compelling couples to do any courting here in the square, so as to increase the value of his properties around the square. She is also upset by a newspaper article which says that Rudolph was betrothed in infancy to the Princess of Monte Carlo, but he explains that it's "practically off." The betrothal lapses when the Princess reaches the age of twenty-one, which will also happen tomorrow; but her father, the Prince, dares not venture out of his house for fear of being arrested by his creditors.

Rudolph finds out about the plot and fears the plot will be successful. Ludwig enters, intent on denouncing the plot to him. Before he can do so, Rudolph declares that he would give anything to avoid being blown up the next day, and Ludwig sees a way out. He patriotically volunteers to challenge Rudolph to a statutory duel. The two men will hide cards up their sleeves, guaranteeing victory to Ludwig. When the plot unfolds, Ludwig will be its victim. The next day, when the Act authorizing statutory duels expires, Rudolph can come back to life unharmed. Although Rudolph is sceptical, he accepts Ludwig's proposal. They stage a mock quarrel and conduct the rigged statutory duel as planned: Rudolph's King is beaten by Ludwig's Ace. Rudolph's subjects berate him with scorn, and he leaves, threatening revenge. Ludwig, now the Grand Duke, promptly extends the Act for another hundred years, thus ensuring that neither Rudolph nor Ernest can come back to life.

Suddenly Julia Jellicoe appears, and once again asserts that, as leading lady, she must take the leading role of the Grand Duchess. Lisa leaves in tears. Julia points out that if they are to occupy a Ducal court, they need to be dressed more impressively than their everyday clothes will allow. Ludwig recalls that they have a complete set of brand-new costumes for Troilus and Cressida, which they can use.

In a room in the Duke's palace, the new court parade in classical costume. Left alone, Ludwig and Julia fail to agree on how her role is to be played. Baroness von Krakenfeldt arrives for her wedding, and is startled at finding Rudolph has been replaced by Ludwig. But once she discovers that Ludwig has beaten Rudolph in a statutory duel, she points out that he must take on Rudolph's responsibilities — including his betrothal to her. So despite being already married to Julia, Ludwig goes off with the Baroness to get married.

Ernest, though legally dead, is desperate for news, and ventures in to try and find out what is going on. He sees the wedding procession in the distance, and assumes that Ludwig is marrying Lisa; but it cannot be so, for Lisa appears. She will not stop, but runs from him as from a ghost. He then supposes that Ludwig must be marrying his Julia — but she too appears. Though affecting to be also frightened of the "ghost", she stays and tells him what Ludwig has done.

The Prince of Monte Carlo arrives with his daughter the Princess and a retinue of supernumeraries — out-of-work actors hired from the Theatre Monaco to play the part of nobles. He has reversed his fortunes by inventing a game called roulette. The Princess is shocked when she discovers that Ludwig already has three Grand Duchesses. He tells her that he defeated Rudolph in a statutory duel, and assumed all of the former Grand Duke's responsibilities. She points out that her claim predates the Baroness von Krakenfeldt's, and Ludwig is therefore obliged to marry her.

The Notary reveals that the Act regulating statutory duels specifically lays down that the ace shall count as lowest, so Ludwig did not win, was never Grand Duke, and cannot have revived the act. Within seconds, the Act expires, returning Ludwig to the living. All dance off to get married — Rudolph and the Princess; Ernest and Julia; the Baroness and the Prince of Monte Carlo; and Ludwig and Lisa.
Bertha: Tammy Davies
Elsa: Ciara O’Connor
Franzel: Matthew James Willis } also sang chorus
Rudi: Stiofan O’Doherty
Otto: Mark Lawson
Ernest Dumkopf, a theatrical manager: Phillip Lee
Ludwig, his leading comedian: Stefan Bednarczyk
Lisa, Ernest’s soubrette: Victoria Byron
Julia Jellicoe, his leading lady: Charlotte Page
Dr. Tannhauser, a notary: Bruce Graham (at this performance, played by Martin Milnes)
Rudolph, the Grand Duke of Pfennig-Halbfennig: Richard Suart
Baroness von Krakenfeldt: Sylvia Clark
The Prince of Monte Carlo: Martin Lamb (at this performance, played by Bruce Graham)
The Princess of Monte Carlo: Jane Quinn

Creative Team:
Libretto: W S Gilbert
Music: Sir Arthur Sullivan
Director: Martin Milnes
Musical Director: John Owen Edwards
Designer: David Shields

Its been admittedly quiet here at NTWEW theatre-trip wise over the last month for various reasons. So apologies for that. But, dear Readers, today will be a bonus day because there will be not one but TWO reviews, it having been decided that we would be spending the entirety of Bank Holiday Monday at the theatre rather than staying at home watching it rain and bickering gently. So in the early, damp afternoon it was off to Earl’s Court to the Finborough Theatre to catch sight of a very, very rare bird indeed – a staged performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s last joint work, one which fell with a resounding flop in 1896 and hasn’t been seen since. And, so the purists would say, not without good reason. But more of that anon.

Now, I’m not saying that the Finborough is small, but it seats 50 at the most and then the audience have to be very, very friendly with each other. In fact, the performing area is smaller than most living rooms and if you arrive late and end up sitting in the front row then it might be a good idea to grab yourself a score and sing along with the chorus because most of the action will be taking place in your lap. Him Indoors had been wondering “where they are going to put the orchestra” en route and it turned out that there was no orchestra for the simple reason that a flute or violin bow would have constituted serious Health and Safety issues for rows A – C. If there had been a double bass it would have hidden 2/3 of the stage and the only way they would have been able to fit a drum in would be to set it up in the toilet downstairs and rig up an intercom. Instead, there were two keyboards crammed onto the side of the stage and even then each bore the marks where 2 octaves had had to be sawn off to get them to fit. During the interval, a chap in the row in front of us opened up a copy of The Telegraph and damned near took my eye out. This place is SMALL, folks. But sometimes very good things come in very small packages – like that tiny box marked “Cartier” that I keep angling for in the run up to Christmas and never get. So it was astonishing that for some considerable time there were 19 singers crowded onto the tiny stage and it was a mark of the director’s expertise that neither of the keyboards went flying during an energetic number, and neither was there any obvious sign of people treading on someone else’s toes or the hem of their costume. This production popped out of a tiny box and filled the air with glitter and streamers and it didn’t matter to either the cast or the audience. For all the notice that the cast took of their cramped performing conditions they could have been appearing on Salisbury Plain. Fortunately the audience didn’t care either, because apart from one very obviously unimpressed woman next to me (who, I gathered from something she snapped to her gentleman companion in the interval) had been “dragged along to watch your bloody G&S”, everyone was having as good a time as those on stage.

Mind you, this was a place for serious geekery. The Grand Duke was more or less consigned to the dustbin of musical theatre history after its first production and hasn’t really been seen since apart from the odd concert performance (and one very odd concert performance but enough said about Grim’s Dyke) and very rare productions mounted by incredibly brave amateur companies willing to take an artistic and financial gamble on the show (in all my years of theatre-going, I’ve only ever seen one of these). Because The Mikado it ain’t. It has a terribly unwieldy plot, as those of you who struggled through the synopsis above will have gathered. It has reams and reams of desperately unfunny dialogue of the kind which makes me think Gilbert had really, by this stage, given up or got played out or even both. It has lots and lots of principal parts, some of which are so small that the person playing them can arrive at the theatre half an hour after curtain up on the second act and still have time to don their costume, plaster on some slap, flick through this week’s Stage, pick their nose thoroughly, have a good rummage in everyone else’s bag and still have time to stand in the wings and wait for their en trance. Others are on stage at the beginning and then don’t appear again for hours at a time. The music has the occasional flash of brilliance but you wouldn’t be able to sing any of the solos or duets in a concert without very lengthy explanation of their context first. The first act is almost completely devoid of chorus save for the very beginning and end. The title character is unsympathetic to say the very least. And yet….. and yet….somehow this production made it work. And made it funny and diverting. It was almost as if, on this minute scale, the wider faults of the piece were completely pushed out of the frame.

Of course, it helps to have a top notch cast. For me, Charlotte Page not only walked away with the entire show but bundled it up, tucked it under her arm and took it home with her. For reasons that only a true G&S geek would understand, Charlotte played the role of Julia with a practically faultless Cherman excent, not only in her dialogue but in her singing as well. Now that takes some doing, as does showing an acting range that encompasses everything from Maria von Trapp to Lady MacBeth. Stefan Bednarczyk sparkled gently as Ludwig (even though every time I looked at him I couldn’t get past his resemblance to Christopher Plummer). Richard Suart chewed every available piece of scenery in his inimitable style – but I question why he was dressed in a Chelsea Pensioner’s uniform? Sylvia Clark was in fine form throughout and managed to make a first-rate comic character from one of Gilbert’s most unappealing “old bag” parts. Kudos points in buckets to Martin Milne who took over the large role of Dr. Tannhauser for this performance due to the unavailability of Martin Lamb, and to Bruce Graham who moved sideways from this role with apparent ease into the small but pivotal role of the Prince of Monte Carlo with no prior rehearsal. Respect, chaps, respect.

“Chorus” (I use quote marks because the chorus parts were sung by five hard working people who all had small named roles) were bright and funny and engaging throughout. Devotees of the all-male Gilbert and Sullivan company who perform at the Union and occasionally Wilton’s Music Hall will be delighted to see several members in tiny supporting roles.

I did think that some of the lyrics needed changing: there will always be those idiots who laugh when they suddenly hear the word "lesbian" in a comic opera, even when in this particular context it has its original meaning of "from the island of Lesbos".  Mind you, even after more than 100 years, some of it is still spot on: what better operetta could there be for the end of the "pastry-gate" scandal than one which features sausage rolls so prominently?

There will be but two (two!) performances of this piece left (next Sunday and Monday) by the time this review is posted, and I believe that both are sold out. However, the run has already been extended once by popular demand so who knows, miracles may happen and it might well be extended again. It certainly deserves it.

Review of the show we saw in the evening will appear very shortly.

What the critics said: